How Brandon Jennings Killed My Escapist Heaven, Or, Why I Hate Him

Photo from monteiths via Flickr

Part of the reason why we like sports is that we don’t actually know why we like sports. We don’t actually know anything.

For something as clear-cut as basketball – every season we have one team that wins a championship, one team that loses in the Finals, and a very long list of shot attempts, each one of which is either 100% a make or 100% a miss – there sure is quite a bit of room for subjectivity. Some people watch Kobe Bryant and see the world’s greatest winner, others see a competitive spirit that is too good to fail but too stubborn to succeed as much as it should. Some people watch LeBron James and see a nightly stream of spine-shattering greatness, others see someone who’s just spineless, a confused young man who is constantly thrown off track by an unfortunate combination of fear and obliviousness. Some people even watch the Bobcats, may God have mercy on their souls.

When I watch Brandon Jennings, I hate everything that I’m seeing. I hate the 20 foot pull-ups that sometimes go in and sometimes don’t. I hate the sneaky forays towards the rim. I hate the flash, the flair, the swag. Even before an atrocious February in which he more or less stopped making good basketball plays, stopped winning games, and decided to tell ESPN’s Chris Broussard that he’s “doing his homework on bigger markets” despite an NBA landscape that is growing increasingly weary of players jumping ship from non-coastal cities so they can force their way towards bright lights.

Even when Brandon Jennings finished doing this to the Miami Heat, setting of a Twitter chain reaction, posting career numbers across the board, leading the Bogut-less Bucks to a since-relinquished playoff position, and was in my opinion a must-pick for the depleted Eastern All-Star roster, I couldn’t stand watching him. Every shot, ill-advised or perfectly reasonable, that went in was met by my contempt. Every night, I would hope the Bucks – a team I am incredibly fond of, if don’t root for per se – won their nightly outing, only to be incredibly disappointed to find out that it took a 30 point night from the southpaw. Somehow, I turned on a seemingly enjoyable basketball player having the best season of his young NBA life, even though I loved him dearly through the struggles of his first two seasons, even though I quite recently declared that “Brandon Jennings is what makes this game beautiful“.

Somehow, I not only stopped liking Jennings, I started actively disliking him. How could that happen?

The answer to that question takes us back to Jennings’ rookie campaign, as all sappy Bucks-related retrospectives should. Something about that magical squad, with the Fearing of Deers, the gridlock defense and the usual helping of the recently deceased John Salmons’ Post-Trade Tour Of Magical Wonders resonated with me on a personal level. Every year sees one or two teams that shock the world en route to an unexpected playoff berth, sometimes leveraging that postseason appearance to give a better team a first round scare, or even steal a series. And we always love them. The 10-11 Grizzlies, the 08-09 Bulls, the 06-07 Warriors – you have to root for them, not just because Goliath is a meanie, but because David is just that easy to relate to.

But being the surprise team of the 09-10 season was a unique distinction. For it was October 27th 2009, opening night, in which I was sitting on a bus and trying to suppress a stream of tears. I was on my way to a friend’s house, where we would play pick-up and watch the Cavs and the Celtics tip off yet another year of festivities, fresh off the discovery that my younger brother, then 14 years of age, had been diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his stomach. I have little to no recollection of how the evening went – the pick up game didn’t even happen as far as my brain can tell, and while I remember that the Cavs lost, I have no idea if their starting center was the newly acquired Shaquille O’Neal or the newly acquired Neuroblastoma. The feeling of those tears on that bus, however, I will carry with me until I can remember no more.

The following months were a peculiar mixture of cancer and basketball. No adjective can do justice with the initial bursts of fear for my family; and yet, facing a newly minted League Pass subscription, ample free time, and a lifelong obsession with round orange things, I was like a kid in a candy store. And when a kid walks down an aisle and is given a choice between LeBron James dominating the universe for a second straight year (pre-playoffs), the Boston Celtics sprinting towards Christmas before fading into the forsaken land of creaky knees and unmotivated nutjobs, the first ever player from his country to play in the NBA, the Durant-Westbrook Thunder’s meteoric rise, and solemnly wallowing in a cancer-laden swamp of self pity, living one’s life vicariously through gigantic men with nimble feet was the only logical choice.

The decision to stare adversity right in the eye, respectfully acknowledge its existence, and provocatively go on with my everyday life, came from my family as much as it did from me. With the exception of my own decision to sleep during the days and watch basketball during the nights, my parents insisted on a family-wide everyday routine. My brother, on the other hand, gleefully boasted that he got cancer to excuse himself from schoolwork, and that nobody ever tells him to close the TV anymore.

And in the other room, on a smaller screen, were the Bucks. Seemingly yet another team on a stationary bicycle pedaling towards stagnant mediocrity, Milwaukee burst onto the League Pass scene behind what is still the defining game of Brandon Jennings’ career, and never looked back. The incredible thing, though, was that their staying power was a product not of the explosiveness and volatility of their rookie point guard, but the exact opposite. The Bucks played a dangerous game of smarts and feebleness, of strength and a lack of skill. Their strategy was a designed mucking of whoever dared step in their path. Never actually great, but good in such a great way, that the difference barely even mattered.

And Jennings? It would be wrong to say he was the mastermind behind the juggernaut – not next to the all-around brilliance of an emerging Andrew Bogut and the frowning perfectionism of Scott Skiles as he paced the sidelines. But even if Jennings didn’t stand above it all, his presence was always felt, filling the gray seams with colorful explosions of light, their rarity overshadowed by their power. The Bucks were a pyrotechnic display impressive not for the sheer absurdity that it entailed, but for its rigidity and its structure, each follicle placed just where it should be, with Jennings the only variable of freedom allowed. And he managed that freedom in a way that was somehow both other-worldly and remarkably human, a state of quantum duality between an inferior version of Allen Iverson and a likeable version of Chris Duhon.

The Bucks made a point never to exhibit weakness, because they truly believed they had none. And yet, they were probably in worse shape than they let themselves realize. Just like my brother, my parents, and myself. But the never-ending fight, and the shocking results that followed, were present in both cases. As Andrew Bogut craftily directed Carlos Delfino towards yet another half-court traps before, head on a swivel, he threw himself in front of a driving guard, somehow managing to either block the shot or draw the charge every single time. Meanwhile, my brother, who I can only assume was feeling miserable somewhere behind my headphones, refused to show signs of such struggles, instead juggling remote controls, limited yet satisfying portions of junk food, and a smile resistant to the outer world.

Several fourth quarters were cut short in favor of driving to the hospital; several timeouts grew longer in the name of pouring a glass of water, or heating up a chosen batch of leftovers before my brother’s usually sickly appetite disappeared for days on ends. But the Bucks were always there, a symbol of the power that is mental fortitude. To this day, I know not what a person watching me watch them would see – a passion enhanced by unfortunate circumstances, or pure, unadulterated escapism – but whatever it was, it kept me going. Even the Bogut injury, which should have brought an end to the fascinating experiment, couldn’t stop the Bucks. It took 7 games against a superior team, and even then, in one of the most disgusting playoff series in recent memory, I was attached to the monitor by the hip.

My brother has now been 100% cancer free for 18 months, back in school with his friends and meaningless everyday problems, his unearthly smile and will proving far more infectious than a terrestrial disease. At the same time, several magnitudes of priorities below, the Bucks as I knew them left with a whimper and a Drew Gooden signing. But if Jennings was but a supporting factor in their rise, their fall had absolutely nothing to do with him. His injured struggles didn’t help, but they were minor issues next to a roster decimated by the failures of limbs and veteran intestines voluptuous with recently ingested contracts. It wasn’t his fault. It just happened next to him.

And yet, this new-ish version of his team is too incomplete in too many places for a complete overhaul of strategy. The things that made 09-10 so special can’t possibly do the same in 11-12, but the Bucks should know damn well that a similar showing represents their best shot. Which is why it has been such an angering disappointment to watch Jennings forcefully, even if rightfully, take over top-billing status en route to attempted re-ascension, while sporting the exact same flaws. Flaws that were easy to overlook when he was just another misfit fighting for legitimacy, but that become much less excusable when you are a supposed franchise player who has now been in the league long enough to learn right from wrong.

Don’t get me wrong – it was unreasonable to expect Jennings to remain just another act in a show so desperate for a ringleader, not with the undeniable talent that runs in his veins. And as mentioned above, his play has been extraordinary, even if you’re not willing to excuse a recent slump. But what was once brilliance has become a tedious affair in stubborn boneheadedness.

The incessant over-confident, step-backing, inherently arrogant jumpers that should have been either perfected (and yes, it’s been much better, but still – 6.4 threes a night at 33%? Really, Brandon?) or abandoned long ago; the seemingly conscious decision to look for one’s self instead of one’s teammates, regardless of the situation; the ridiculous notion that listening to Stephen Jackson is a smart decision; the far, far too premature glance towards the grass-is-greener big-market scenario, regardless of whether those are actually his feelings or just an unfortunate misinterpretation.

Which is how I came to hate Brandon Jennings. Not because he is a bad player, or because he’s no longer fun to watch. But because in his distorted vision of his future, he has stomped over what was a crucial point in my past. Because of his insistence not to be as good as he can be, but to be so in a way that is neither possible nor amicable. Because with every passing game, whether he registers a passive-aggressive 4 field goal attempts or an overtly audacious 26, it is clear that he refuses to accept his obvious limitations, even though the world would openly accept them if he so much as stopped pretending they aren’t there.

Most of all, I hate him because when I needed to turn my head away from the horrendous sight that is a skeleton-thin, bald 14 year old who with whom I’ve shared my home and my blood for my entire life, I turned to the 09-10 Bucks. And yet, when Jennings needs to turn away from something as manageable as an imperfection to his basketball game, he looks at that same Bucks team, and makes sure they will never come back.

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.